Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Complete D.R. & Quinch

Alan Moore, Alan Davis & Jamie Delano
The Complete D.R. & Quinch (1987)

Moore apparently disowns this one as having lacked any redeeming social values, which is a shame, and I know at least one person who regards it as the only decent thing the man ever wrote. D.R. & Quinch of course appeared in the pages of 2000AD about a million years ago. It's basically an underground comic very much revealing Moore's roots and would have been equally at home in the pages of Commies from Mars, and as such I'd suggest it actually is a big deal that Moore managed to sell it to the Mighty Tharg in the first place, so he does himself something of a disservice and his subsequent judgement regarding redeeming social values seems to have come from the same place which inspired that bewilderingly nihilistic take on seventies punk culture in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which appeared to owe more to Kenny Everett's Sid Snot routines than anything which actually happened.

The lack of redeeming social values is surely the point, because there's a certain age at which it's both healthy and educational to piss off one's parents; and thus we have a science-fiction rewrite of characters from National Lampoon's Animal House in a spirit distantly descended from that of Whizz for Atomms by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle; because mindless destruction can be funny, and sometimes it should be celebrated; or if you don't understand it, bust it, as my friend Carl once explained to me.

Of course, it might be argued that such rampant nihilism worked better against the backdrop of the wipe-clean pastel-toned eighties than it does now, with reactionary trends having reclassified popular support for the worst sort of authoritarian eugenicist as a somehow daring and even revolutionary position - because God forbid that anyone should have their lives quite literally destroyed by political correctness; but if we're going to let certain fuckwits claim that Hitler was simply of his time, then I don't see any good reason to dismiss D.R. & Quinch, who were for a short while the epitomy of rock 'n' fuckin' roll, man.

Technically, the writing is kind of loose and sloppy, closer in spirit to Roscoe Moscow than Watchmen - not so much stories as a series of gags with raspberries blown in the general direction of everything else, which I personally see as joyous rather than cynical or necessarily nihilistic; but it doesn't matter because the gags are funny, and are still funny thirty years later, and the art of Alan Davis is gorgeous, and D.R. & Quinch is easily as much his work as Moore's; and you know, I still can't watch The Godfather or Apocalypse Now without a little voice in the back of my head whispering mind the oranges, Marlon.

For fuck's sake, Alan - get a grip: be proud!

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Amber Spyglass

Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass (2000)
I probably shouldn't have left it so long. I read the first two of the trilogy back in 2015 and somehow just couldn't quite get around to this one. I generally dislike trilogies, or at least those comprising a single extended story split into three - as distinct from three vaguely related stories sharing either characters, settings or concepts. I generally dislike works of such length because it takes an exceptional author to sustain my interest over so distended a word count, and not many really seem able to pull it off without a degree of droop entering the equation. Michael Moorcock, David Louis Edelman and Peter F. Hamilton have all managed it, as did Stephen Baxter - although the Xeelee books were mostly self contained. C.S. Lewis didn't, and it's probably not fair to comment on Tolkien given that I was about fifteen when I stalled at the beginning of the third volume; of course there are also trilogies by Brian Aldiss and Phil Purser-Hallard, and I still have one book to go in each case.

I had no trouble getting back into His Dark Materials, even if I couldn't quite remember all of what had been before. It opens well, and I had retained enough to keep me interested and not overly bewildered, although I've still no fucking clue who those little people with the dragonflies were supposed to be. Also there seems to have been some kind of switcheroo as to who was the villain, so I read on in the assumption that both of Lyra's parents were probably arseholes, and in the assumption that Pullman had discarded the fantasy tradition of moustache-twirling evil, instead writing something which works more like real life, at least in moral terms.

Lyra travels into the realm of the dead and rescues all of the ghosts for reasons I never quite understood, and the dæmons with which everyone on her world is born seem to be a metaphor for awakening sexuality, or at least the intellectual maturity which hopefully coincides with the advent of the same; and Dust is somehow related, although it's also dark matter - so Donald Trump probably wouldn't have much Dust whilst Carl Sagan would have lived his life enveloped in a cloud of the stuff, or something like that. I don't know. I was a bit lost as to why everyone was doing whatever they were doing and what they hoped to achieve. Like I say, I probably shouldn't have left it so long.

I enjoyed the wheeled beings, but the whole enterprise got bogged down in dreary Tolkienesque battles as the end drew near, so I switched my evening reading session to Lewis Black's Nothing's Sacred for the sake of something to look forward to before I go to sleep. Despite all those sparkling images and delightful sentences, it was ultimately a relief to have finished the thing.

I'd been warned about His Dark Materials being an atheist diatribe, which would have been a problem because I dislike authors assuming their readers to be idiots, but thankfully the warning seems to have originated with someone more sensitive to such things than I apparently am. Pullman clearly doesn't think much of organised religion, and that's fine, but there's no obvious metaphors waggled in our face with the usual qualifier of don't you think this is terrible? If the book has a message, it's more or less delivered by John Parry:

'And this is the reason for all those things: your dæmon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. We can travel, if there are openings into other worlds, but we can only live in our own. Lord Asriel's great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.'

So try not to blow it whilst you're alive, because you almost certainly won't get a second chance. The narrative presents us with examples of those who blow it because they've spent too long worrying over things which don't matter - people who are, as a direct result, generally disagreeable fuckers. The tale works well enough, and it's a good point, and it's told with verve and imagination, but I'm sure it didn't really need to be as overextended as it is. So it's either good but could have been better, or I really shouldn't have left it so long.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Ten Great Mysteries

Edgar Allan Poe Ten Great Mysteries (1845)
I suppose Ten Stories of Which a Certain Portion Might Be Deemed Adequately Mysterious would have seemed cumbersome, and I think it was The Black Cat which tipped it for me, representing the point at which I noticed I was once again straining to find the value in something old, undeniably worthy, hugely influential and generally hailed as a copper-bottomed classic when truthfully I'm bored absolutely shitless.

I'm prepared to acknowledge that Poe was a major talent and an important figure in the history of literature providing anyone supporting that position with any degree of fervour is prepared to acknowledge the possibility that his alleged strengths are very poorly represented in this collection. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, and The Pit and the Pendulum are all readable, as I suppose is The Black Cat on a purely technical level. At his best, Poe works up a thoroughly convincing atmosphere and there's an undeniable poetry to his words - as you might reasonably expect. The two stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin are of particular interest in providing obvious inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, but also in being more than simple detective tales, but tales about the mechanics of perception and understanding as explored by means of a pipe-smoking detective seeking clues. Elsewhere Poe cooks up powerfully claustrophobic first person narratives which I would imagine almost certainly inspired H.P. Lovecraft, and also - quite unexpectedly - A.E. van Vogt.

Beyond this, we have short stories which doubtless worked better for the less-jaded readers of the time than they do for me in 2016. The main problem is that nothing much happens in any of these, and most seem to amount to single extended scenarios intended to induce a sense of unease; and also that a few of them felt like I was reading a long, long letter from a fucking solicitor. My attention could just not be kept upon the page, no matter what. You might suppose it serves me right for all those hours spent playing Super Mario Kart, but I've read shitloads from the 1840s or thereabouts, and shitloads from the 1840s or thereabouts which hasn't bored me to tears quite like this bunch. Even Fitz-James O'Brien wrote a better yarn if you can ignore the routine anti-Semitism.

Some of the stories were okay, if hardly serving to justify Poe's stellar reputation; others were simply dull, just as all those other stories by Robert Louis Stevenson were dull; and then there's The Black Cat which effects a reaction with descriptions of its protagonist torturing and then killing his pet cat. I'm sure no real cats were harmed but I really dislike this sort of lazy revulsion-response button pushing associated with certain strands of horror fiction and certain realms of the internet. Whilst shock is as valid a tool as any in the creation of art, it requires skilled application rather than just shoving it in our faces whilst making a lurid, gurgling noise. The Black Cat is simply vile and ham-fisted, the just deserts conclusion justifying the means with all the conviction of your average busted kiddy fiddler protesting that those photographs were purely for research purposes. I guess Poe was hoping to get a reaction, and he succeeded in so much as my reaction is that he can fuck off, and that I've cancelled any plans I had to read any more of his yawnsome shite ever again. I'm glad his name has been posthumously associated with pisspots.

The Centauri Device

M. John Harrison The Centauri Device (1974)
I sought this entirely because I loved the cover of the SF Masterworks edition. It took me a while to find a copy because I greatly prefer the traditional paperback size and the aforementioned SF Masterworks edition was of those slightly larger vital statistics by which more or less everything is now published, a size I dislike because it seems to be saying ooh ooh look at me reading a proper book like something by that Vikram Seth or one of those guys. Unfortunately the price for my dimensional loyalty is that the copy I eventually find has this cover. Never mind.

I gather Harrison emerged from that whole new wave thing surrounding Moorcock's New Worlds, and it certainly reads that way. The Centauri Device is gonzo space opera - I suppose you might call it - dense prose rich with bizarre images like a slightly more grizzled and hard boiled version of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, and I suppose it must be admitted that it wears its vintage on its sleeve, at times reminding me of Alan Moore's The Stars My Degredation or something drawn by Bryan Talbot; and there were quite a few Hawkwind numbers spontaneously popping into my head as I was reading, particularly Spirit of the Age. Unfortunately though, the prose is so dense that it becomes a little tough in places - not that the story is so horribly complicated as to demand one's full attention, but reading gets to feel a bit thankless towards the end what with all the baroque descriptions of vaguely disgusting things piling up one after the other to a degree which you can almost smell. It's a little like some of Iain M. Banks' less successful novels in terms of texture, and I strongly suspect Harrison was an influence. The appearance of spacecraft with names such as the Melancholia that Transcends All Wit and the Let Us Go Hence seem a bit of a smoking gun on that score.

That said, The Centauri Device isn't a bad book in any sense so much as simply one which should have been better. It's short and snappy, never quite boring, brimming with wild and wacky ideas - most notably the Opener religious sect who believe God to be in the detail and who have transparent windows inset into their flesh so as to reveal the workings of their innards - and the raw, squelchy poetry of the text is frequently astonishing.

'Here we begin to guess at the nature of space,' said Pater softly to Truck. 'Our palette is prepared. The galaxy has given us our canvas, a dead dragonfly had bequeathed us the brushes we have to hand. We make space. We define it. Look out there. IWG and UASR see at best a conduit for Earth's rubbish of politics. We infer reality. None of this belongs to Earth or to ideology. It is inviolate.'

What any of it's actually about is another thing entirely, although the above passage seems pertinent. The Centauri Device appears to be about liberty, ideas, and two fingers up to authority in the same way that certain Surrealist paintings tend to be about these things - so the message is inherent in the form rather than in anything which is spelled out. It's a book which asks its reader to put in a certain degree of effort, but mostly rewards what work you might undertake, possibly providing you're in the right mood - which maybe I wasn't.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Vision: Little Better Than a Beast

Tom King & Gabriel Hernandez Walta
The Vision: Little Better Than a Beast (2016)

Here's the second half of the story for which the first half was collected as Little Worse Than a Man, and which I suggested might be the best thing Marvel have ever published. Little Worse Than a Man seems to be the story of a family of robots settling down and attempting to blend in with regular folks, except with a very different tone to how that may sound and somehow managing to turn those chuckles and overly logical misunderstandings into something both poignant and chilling. Little Better Than a Beast completes the title quotation from The Merchant of Venice, presenting a conclusion which seems initially shaky in how it relates to what has gone before, until you realise that it's simply because all humour has been stripped from the increasingly harrowing psychological drama. It's not that the jokes aren't there, but you'd have to be lacking something fairly basic to keep on finding them funny - which, by the way, is probably deliberate. The dynamic of the story derives from the relentless and guileless optimism of inherently flawed people, or at least beings. That which makes them human in turn destroys and debases their humanity.

As you might gather from the above, it's quite easy to forget that this is still essentially a superhero book, and we're reminded when various Avengers appear - notably an Iron Man these days looking one hell of a lot like Robert Downey Jr. I'm not entirely sure whether it's down to the beautifully understated art, the narrative depth, or a combination of the two, but when the capes start flapping it's actually kind of shocking, almost frightening in the same way that The Dark Knight Returns was frightening back when it first hit the stands; and we are reminded that, realistically speaking, superheroes would be fucking terrifying if they were real.

Thankfully though, superheroes are hardly the point of the story. The point might be simplified as the gulf between that which we would like to be and that which we cannot help being, although by the same token Hamlet is probably just a play about a bloke who sees a ghost. You really need to read this one to appreciate it. For a book full of flying guys with capes, this story feels at least as dark as anything written by Michael Gira for a Swans album, and there are a few moments which I found just plain horrible and yet unfortunately necessary; so fuck it: like I said before, this is probably the best thing Marvel have ever published.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Mysterious Island

Jules Verne The Mysterious Island (1874)
It seems that appreciation of Jules Verne is somewhat reliant upon which translation you happen to be reading, for there are apparently many. I hated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and everyone in it, so hopefully that was one of the ropey versions. Conversely, I enjoyed From the Earth to the Moon well enough, and have generally found this one to be likewise a decent, if slightly insubstantial read. Both turn out to have been translated by Lowell Bair and for the sake of argument, I'm going to pretend this is entirely the work of Jules Verne - as opposed to Verne given particular emphasis by the aforementioned Bair - because it'll get too complicated otherwise.

The Mysterious Island reads more or less like somebody novelised a few issues of Understanding Science, the sixties kids' magazine building up week by week into etc. etc. First we meet our balloonists, all chaps of good progressive stock, plus a plucky hound and an African-American man included presumably as representative of racial equality and the abolitionist cause against slavery - which is nice although Verne doesn't actually seem to give him much to say, so mostly he's just hanging around following orders and sawing up logs or whatever. Oddly, although this novel continues what I presume must have been Verne's fascination with America as a newborn civilisation doing its best to get things right, we still find some influence of the typically nineteenth century notion of class as an inherent quality; so with the African-American Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged as a roughly equal partner, we're apparently left with a gap which is quickly filled by Jupiter the orang-utan, tamed and rendered a loyal servant at least until Verne gets bored of the idea and he vanishes from sight barring a single reference near the end. I mention this only because it struck me as odd.

Our boys find themselves marooned on the island in what might be read as a re-run of Robinson Crusoe, or perhaps even an inversion. Being enlightened men they immediately throw themselves into the task of civilising the wilderness by means of all their scientific knowledge, smelting iron, making tools, even fashioning glass for their fancy cave, and with no time for Crusoe's philosophising or even much thought beyond their present circumstances. Just like the America from which they came, they're building a new world rather than looking to the horizon in hope of getting back to the old one, so there's a lot of talk about how to make rope, drain lakes, the manufacture of wire for telecommunications and so on; and against all odds, it's actually very readable, even engrossing. This I find of particular interest given the poor reputation of what has come to be regarded as Gernsbackian science-fiction, so named after the editor of Amazing Stories who favoured this kind of technologically-fixated narrative, much to the more recent annoyance of Brian Aldiss; and yet it is only a variation on what Verne wrote.

The Mysterious Island is additionally a sequel of sorts to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in so much as that it ends with Captain Nemo revealed as the hidden author of certain mysterious occurrences on the island. This conclusion feels a little tagged on given the mysterious occurrences having been mostly underwhelming, but I suppose it keeps the novel from being a couple of hundred pages about the best way to build a boat. There's a possibility that Bair's translation may lose some of the poetry of the original because I otherwise have to wonder why this should be regarded as a classic. This isn't so much a criticism of any failings it may have so much as to acknowledge that it doesn't really do very much as a narrative; but then for something which doesn't do very much, it's nevertheless a highly satisfying read.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Ultimate X-Men volume three

Mark Millar, Chuck Austen, various Kuberts, some other guys...
Ultimate X-Men volume three (2001)

I suppose I could save myself the effort of writing this review by referring you to its predecessor, as found here. Pretty much everything I said in June applies here, but possibly moreso. I guess the last three X-Men movies were based on the Millar version, and they were decent as movies but this is a comic book; and while it's fine to reinvent characters and situations every so often - if you really must - there really needs to be a reason for the revision beyond just revision. Whilst many elements of those early Chris Claremont issues of X-Men may now seem clunky, dated, and packed so full of corn one might almost think they were aimed at - titter! snurf! - eight-year old boys, they did their job and they did it well. I liked Storm as a po-faced weather-Goddess and Wolverine as Ernest Borgnine with claws. They didn't need to be sulky smart-arsed eye-rolling text-messaging teenagers, particularly not as part of a team comprised exclusively of the same. It's not like they were particularly rich or well-rounded as characters to begin with, but at least you could tell them apart from one another.

Here we get a mash-up of the Proteus storyline from 1979 and the first appearance of Legion in New Mutants, but with more whining and Buffyisms; and it's okay and it does its job very well, but I still can't see why anyone bothered. Betsy Braddock gets recycled as yet another generically deadly telepathic female - a development which can fuck right off; and then there are two issues of revisionist Gambit back story, still with the total arseache of everything written in that annoying phonetic rendering of Cajun which really should have been made illégal by maintenant, mon cheri. I always found Gambit a tedious non-character anyway, so his revival negates the one thing this version had going for it.

I usually like Mark Millar's writing except for when I don't, but this is the first time I've found it workmanlike and bland. For all its flaws, the Claremont run from John Byrne through to Marc Silvestri makes this thing look like Monster High. Grant Morrison's run was pretty radical in some respects, but it worked because he kept his eye on what made the thing great in the first place.